How a Son of the Salt Range defied the Desert Fox

Maj Gen Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of Lt. Col. Mian Khan, MC, and his actions at the Battle of El Alamein

How a Son of the Salt Range defied the Desert Fox
For a military historian, the Second World War provides an immense canvas for research. One of the areas of my focus happens to be the gallantry awards to Indian officers and soldiers and assembling a narrative that elaborates on the citation within the larger operational picture. What never fails to amaze me is how resolute human beings can be when facing overwhelming odds – and quite often, it is one man’s action that makes all the difference between the success and failure of an operation. Such was the case of Capt. Mian Khan, who was awarded a Military Cross (MC) in the First Battle of El Alamein (1942).

My research is invariably triggered by one of many things – like a photograph of the recipient, his mention in a battle account, a chance meeting with a descendant or a set of medals. In the case of Mian Khan, it was a photograph of a First World War Memorial Tablet erected in Buchal Kalan, a small village standing on the crest of the Salt Range and 20 km southwest of Kalar Kahar. It appeared on the Facebook page of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, United Services Institute, Delhi. The photograph was credited to “Mr Khan Shahzad Gul, a descendant of many distinguished soldiers including Col Mian Khan, MC, 1/15th Punjab Regiment (Late Machine Gun Battalion, 6th Rajputana Rifles) who was awarded his Military Cross for gallantry in the Middle East in February 1941”.

Capt Mian Khan, MC, Machine Gun Battalion, 6th Rajputana Rifles

I knew Buchal Kalan well. In my search for these memorial tablets, I had visited it a couple of years back and found the tablet embedded in the wall of the police station. It records that 287 men went to fight in the Great War (WW1) from this village of whom three lost their lives.

I searched for Mian Khan on the internet and luckily came upon an article published by the Hilal magazine of the Pakistan Armed Forces, which outlined his career. I also found his descendant Mr. Khan Shahzad Gul on Facebook, who provided me with the family background.

Mian Khan was from the large clan of Awans and was born in Buchal Khurd, which is a few kilometers away from Buchal Kalan. He came from solid military stock. His father Muhammad Buksh had served in the army as well as his three elder brothers. The eldest, Zaman Khan, retired as subedar major from the Baloch Regiment and was a veteran of both the World Wars. Next was Fateh Khan who was also a veteran of the First World War and retired as a NCO, and finally Subedar Chaudhary Khan who was a veteran of the Second World War. Amongst all four, Mian Khan was the only one who passed his matric from the Mission High School at Dalwal which was 45 km from his village. The school was established in 1900 by Christian missionaries of the Franciscan Order.

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, famously known as the 'Desert Fox', confers with aides during the fighting in the desert, 1942

Mian Khan enlisted as a soldier in 3/6th Raj. Rif. (abbreviation for Rajputana Rifles) in 1927 and three years later, accompanied his battalion to Burma for suppressing a rebellion. Returning to India in 1933, he did a tenure with the battalion in Waziristan as a Naik and since he must have proved to be a good soldier, he was admitted into an Officers Training School at the beginning of the War and granted an emergency commission. He was posted to the 10/6th Raj. Rif. which was the training battalion of the group. The article had a few details of the action for which he was awarded an MC, but I later found them to be incorrect.

I requested my friend and historian Sushil Kumar for the citation of Mian Khan. Sushil has published a book on all the Indians who were awarded MCs during the Second World War and he generously shared with me Mian Khan’s record of service. To the discerning, the citation contains a wealth of information. It showed that his army number as IEC 301 which indicates that he was one of the early Emergency Commissioned Officers and from his record of service I found that he was commissioned on the 15th of February 1941. His unit in the citation was the Machine Gun Battalion of the 6th Raj. Rif.
Mian Khan was from the large clan of Awans and was born in Buchal Khurd

My knowledge about these machine gun battalions was inadequate and a search on Google revealed that at the beginning of the war, many of the regimental groups of the British India Army formed machine gun battalions by either converting existing units or raising new ones. The machine gun battalion of the 6th Raj. Rif. was raised in Delhi in October 1941 and Mian Khan transferred to it. Most of the Indian divisions had a machine gun battalion in support and their companies and platoons were further detached to brigades and battalions. The citation indicates that Mian Khan was commanding a machine gun company attached to the 4/6th Raj. Rif. whose commanding officer initiated the citation.

When studying this citation it was so easy to get sidetracked by the personalities who endorsed it. The brigade commander was Dudley Russell (nicknamed Pasha) who held an MC from the First World War and was awarded a DSO just a few months earlier. He had commanded 6/13th Frontier Force and subsequently commanded the 8th Indian Division in Italy with distinction. The division commander was Maj Gen Harold Briggs who led the 5th Indian Division for three years and under his leadership it performed exceptionally well against the Japanese in Burma during the Arakan Campaign as well as the Battle of Imphal-Kohima in 1944. By the end of the war he was a lieutenant general with a DSO and two bars. Field Marshal Sir William Slim said of him “I know of few commanders who made as many immediate and critical decisions on every step of the ladder of promotion, and I know of none who made so few mistakes” The two other names that appear on the citation need no further elaboration: Lt. Gen. B. L. Montgomery, Commander Eighth Army and Gen Harold Alexander, C-in-C Middle East Forces. Both subsequently were promoted field marshals.

Lt Col Mian Khan (circled) at the Metropolitan Police Detective Training School, Hendon, UK

The battalion sailed for the Suez in May 1942 and after three weeks of desert training at Khataba Camp, it joined the famous 4th Indian Division. This is one of my favourite divisions of the British Indian Army and was in the vanguard during nine campaigns in the Mediterranean Theatre. Relegated to secondary duties during the offensive at El Alamein because Montgomery didn’t like the Indian Army, it won his respect during the fighting in the tough, hilly terrain of Tunisia. When the US Army in Tunisia asked the Eighth Army for an infantry division, Montgomery offered the 4th Division, which according to him was the best infantry division under his command. My research revealed that during the First Battle of El Alamein it was not on the ORBAT (Order of Battle) of the Eighth Army. Only one brigade of the 4th division (namely the 5th Infantry Brigade) and its machine gun battalion were in this theatre and under the command of the 5th Indian Division.

The battle opened on the 1st of July with an attack by the Axis forces south of the El Alamein Box but within a week, the momentum of Rommel’s forces stalled. They were too exhausted, casualties were high and the supplies over stretched. In line with his policy of “rebound tactics”, Auchinleck launched a counterattack in two phases; the first from the north and south to draw German armour, and the second to puncture the relatively weak centre of the Axis salient at the Ruweisat Ridge held by two Italian Divisions.

Attack on Ruweisat Ridge, 14-15 July 1942

The ridge was a long narrow hump of sand and stones running east and west, only 30 or 40 feet above the level of the desert around it. From a distance the ground did not even seem to rise at all; but from its crest it was possible to see a surprisingly far in all directions. In The Tiger Kills it is described as “[…] a forefinger [that] poked into his [the German’s] midriff. Any jab would be felt”. The response by the German armour would be defeated by British tanks and the recently issued 6-pounder antitank guns.

In the library that I inherited from my father are two books which cover this action; Ball of Fire: The Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War and The Tiger Kills which is the second in a trilogy of books on the Indian divisions in Africa and Italy. I also consulted the War Diary of the 2nd New Zealand Division which spearheaded the attack. The capture was to be accomplished by a night attack of two brigades of the New Zealand Division to secure the western portion of the ridge and the 5th Indian Brigade on the eastern portion. Two armored brigades where to join the battle in the morning for protection and exploitation. The 5th Indian Brigade advanced at midnight of 14/15 July. While 3/10th Baloch on right were on the ridge by dawn, 4/6th Raj. Rif. which had to cover a longer distance of over 3,500 yards, ran into barbed wire and minefields and became disorganized well short of the objective. To their left, the New Zealanders had reached the ridge after even a longer trek of 5-6 miles but, in the darkness, left behind pockets of resistance.

Shortly after dawn the left flank of the Rajputana Rifles came under heavy fire probably from an Italian strongpoint that had been bypassed by the New Zealanders. According to the citation “This sudden fire from a flank which was supposed to be occupied by our own troops [i.e. the New Zealanders], disorganized the Bn [battalion] to some extent and the forward Coys [companies] withdrew”.

It seems that the Machine Gun Company was also disorganized but at this critical stage,

“Capt. MIAN KHAN, with great presence of mind collected two men and himself manned an abandoned M.M.G. and carried on firing at the enemy guns for over an hour. During this period he was alone with his two men. This cool and collected action was mainly responsible for silencing the enemy guns and allowing the Bn to reorganize in the rear and launch another attack”.

The author next to the WW1 memorial tablet at Buchal Khan

The Tiger Kills compliments Capt. Mian Khan for “doing wonders”, due to which the battalion advanced again at 11 a.m. penetrated the minefield and captured Point 64.

The citation does not record that Mian Khan was injured but according to the article in the Hilal, he received near-fatal injuries in Africa (it may have been in a subsequent action), and after recovering was posted to the Infantry School at Mhow.

At Independence in 1947, he was allotted the number Pakistan Army 189 and transferred to the 9th Punjab Regiment which he subsequently commanded. He also has the unique distinction of commanding the 21st Medium Artillery Regiment. He participated in the 1948 Kashmir War and then attended a course at the Metropolitan Police Detective Training School, in the UK. In 1951 he was appointed as the first Pakistani commandant of the Military Police Centre, and in 1952 as an instructor at the School of Infantry and Tactics. After completing nearly three decades of military service, Lt. Col. Mian Khan retired from the Army in 1955 and passed away in 1964.

Mian Khan (left) while serving as a Havildar in the 6th Rajputana Rifles

How did Mian Khan’s brave stand make a difference to the outcome of the battle of Ruweisat Ridge? The New Zealand Division was very exposed as their supporting armoured brigade was unable to link up due to communication issues. Thus they could not hold against a strong counterattack launched in the evening of the 15th of July and after taking heavy casualties withdrew – leaving only the 5th Infantry Brigade on the Ruweisat Ridge, with 4/6th Raj. Rif, two companies of an Essex battalion and an antitank battery holding the critical feature of Point 64. If the Raj. Rif. had not been able to come up, in all likelihood the German counterattack would have rolled over Point 64 and an opportunity for a battle of destruction of the German forces the next morning would have been lost.

With Point 64 firmly held, a British armoured brigade with a strong force of 6-pounders arrived in the afternoon of the 16th of July and remained concealed in the lee of the ridge. When the German tanks rushed forward in the evening, they were decimated by the 6-pounders and the tanks which had crept forward into hull-down positions. The Allies had learnt well from the tactics that the Germans had used against them in earlier battles, and defeated them at their own game.

Derelicts strewed the battleground and the tally counted by the 5th Infantry Brigade the next morning was 25 tanks, 6 armoured cars, 6 anti-tank guns, 8 field guns, and 6 of the dreaded 88 mm dual-purpose guns. A full scale counterattack by the Germans had been defeated. It was a loss that Rommel could hardly afford at this point in time.